The Iliad

by: Homer

Books 19–20

These books of the poem concern themselves not only with the motivations and consequences of characters’ actions but also with the forces at work outside direct human agency. In particular, Agamemnon speaks of the powers of Zeus and Fate, blaming them for his stubbornness in the quarrel with Achilles. He notes that many have held him responsible for the destruction that his insult to Achilles has caused, but he insists that his earlier “savage madness” was driven into his heart by force (19.102). He also cites the force of “Ruin,” a translation of the Greek word Ate, which refers to delusion and madness as well as to the disaster that such mental states can bring about (19.106). But Agamemnon and other characters throughout the epic describe Ruin not as a mortal phenomenon but as something external to human psychology; Ruin is described as a sentient being in and of itself. In Book 9, for example, Peleus describes Ruin as a woman, “strong and swift,” coursing over the earth wreaking havoc (9.614). Here, Agamemnon refers to Ruin as Zeus’s daughter, gliding over the earth with delicate feet, entangling men one by one, and even proving capable of entangling Zeus himself.

Another force repeatedly invoked here and throughout The Iliad is Fate. Despite the constant references to it, however, we never attain a clear sense of Fate’s properties. The first few lines of the poem suggest that the will of Zeus overpowers all, yet at times Zeus himself seems beholden to Fate. In Book 15, for example, he agrees to cease his aid to the Trojans because he knows that Troy is fated to fall. At other times, Zeus and Fate appear to work cooperatively, as in Book 20, when Zeus rallies the gods to stop Achilles from sacking Troy before its fated time. But one wonders to what extent this Fate is really fate at all, if Achilles can so easily preempt it. Other questions arise in Poseidon’s discussion of Fate, for he justifies saving Aeneas from Achilles on the grounds that Aeneas is fated to live. This reasoning is paradoxical, for if Aeneas is fated to live, he should not need rescuing.

Ultimately, The Iliad doesn’t present a clear hierarchy of the cosmic powers; we are left uncertain as to whether the gods control Fate or are forced to follow its dictates. The external forces of Fate, Ruin, and the gods remain as obscure as the inner workings of the human psyche. Thus, while the poet and his characters may attribute certain events to a personified Fate or Fury, such ascriptions do little to explain the events. Indeed, they achieve quite the opposite effect, indicating the mysterious nature of the universe and the human actions within it. To invoke Ruin or the gods is to suggest not only that certain aspects of our world lie beyond human control but also that many phenomena lie beyond human understanding as well.